Singer. Janelle Monáe Robinson was born on December 1, 1985, in Kansas City, Kansas. Her mother was a janitor and her father was a garbage truck driver who struggled with drug addiction throughout Monáe’s childhood. “I come from a very hard working-class family who make nothing into something,” she says. Monáe’s hardscrabble background and early experiences with the perils of drug addiction inspired her intense drive to succeed.
“I’ve never forgotten where I come from,” she says. “It’s crazy, but I really want to be the one to show everyone back home that it can be done. And not by selling drugs but by being passionate about the right thing—and the right things will come your way.” She pays homage to her parents with a signature black-and-white tuxedo she wears for every performance. “I call it my uniform,” she explained. “My mother was a janitor and my father collected trash, so I wear a uniform too.”
From a very young age, Monáe distinguished herself as a highly artistic and intelligent child. She stood out as a singer at the local Baptist church and appeared in local productions of musicals such as The Wiz and Cinderella. In addition to singing and performing, Monáe was also a precocious young writer. She joined Kansas City’s Coterie Theater Young Playwrights’ Round Table and wrote several full-length plays and musicals. One script, completed when she was only 12 years old, told the story of a boy and girl who compete for the love of a plant—an idea inspired by Stevie Wonder’s 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. “I was infatuated with photosynthesis,” she offered by way of explanation.
After graduating from F.L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Monáe received a scholarship to study musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, where she was the only black woman in her class. However, Monáe quickly dropped out of the Academy because she felt creatively stifled. “I wanted to write my own musicals,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to have to live vicariously through a character that had been played thousands of times—in a line with everybody wanting to play the same person.”
After dropping out of school, Monáe moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived in a boarding house with five other women and took a job working at an Office Depot. She self-produced a demo CD entitled “Janelle Monáe: The Audition” and relentlessly toured local colleges to perform and promote her music. It was on one such tour that Monáe met two like-minded young songwriters, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder. The three of them soon founded the Wondaland Arts Society, a record label and artists’ collective to promote innovative music and art.
Monáe’s big break came in 2005, at the age of 20, when she performed Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” at an open mic night. Big Boi, one half of the famous hip-hop duo OutKast, was in the audience and was thoroughly impressed with Monáe ‘s performance. He featured Monáe on two tracks, “Time Will Reveal” and “Lettin’ Go,” from the hip-hop group Purple Ribbon All-Stars’ album Got Purp? Vol. II, released later that year. A year later, in 2006, OutKast featured Monáe on two more songs, “Call the Law” and “In Your Dreams,” from its popular and acclaimed album Idlewild.
After her work on Idlewild, Monáe set out to create her own music with the help of her two partners in the Wondaland Arts Society. Her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), attracted the attention of the famous producer Diddy (Sean “Puffy” Combs), who signed Monáe to his Bad Boy Records label and released and promoted the EP. In an interview with MTV, Diddy said, “I was looking for things that were different and innovative. Because if you’re a leader in this industry you want to be helping to push it forward, and she’s an artist that would help to push it forward.” Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) reached No. 115 on the Billboard Album Charts, and its lead single, “Many Moons,” received a Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
In 2010, Monáe released her debut full-length album, The ArchAndroid, which peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard U.S. album chart and featured the singles “Cold War” and “Tightrope.” Based loosely on the 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis, which depicts a dystopian futuristic world, The ArchAndroid is a concept album about a robot named Cindi Mayweather in the year 2719. The album is at once a futurist sci-fi story and an allegory for African-American history. “The android represents a new form of the Other,” she says. “And I believe we’re going to be living in a world of androids by 2029. How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we’re integrated? I’ve felt like the Other at certain points in my life. I felt like it was a universal language that we could all understand.” The ArchAndroid received rave reviews and earned Monáe another Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary R&B Album.
With her beautiful and powerful voice and boundless creativity, Monáe is a rising star in contemporary R&B. With only one full-length album to her name, she already has two Grammy nominations and counts Diddy, Big Boi, Bruno Mars, Prince and—reportedly—President Barack Obama among her admirers. “People that worked in his campaign have told us he is very aware of me,” she said of the president. “He’s a fan.”
Perhaps what most distinguishes Monáe from other young stars is her commitment to creating challenging music. “I feel like I do have a responsibility to the community,” Monáe said. “The music that we create is to help free their minds and, whenever they feel oppressed, to keep them uplifted. We want the music and the vision that we have to be their choice of drug, if you will. So we need a manifesto. If we want to stay on message, we have to believe in what we’re fighting for, and we do.”